Women’s Economic Participation in Latin America: Closing the Gap

Both candidates in Chile's Dec. 2013 presidential runoff were women.
Both candidates in Chile’s Dec. 2013 presidential runoff were women.

In the past quarter century, the level of women’s economic participation has steadily grown in Latin America. During the first decade of this century, women’s participation grew by 15 percent, contributing to an overall decline in income inequality and extreme poverty. The World Bank estimates that currently 14.6 percent of Latin Americans live in extreme poverty – but contrast that with the hypothetical 17.7 percent had fewer women entered the workforce. Given Latin America’s steady growth in the face of worldwide recession in the 2000s, there’s no reason not to expect more advances for women’s opportunities.

Women’s increased political participation has also helped increase economic opportunities for Latin American women. As more and more female presidents take and hold office, more women consider professional lives outside the home to be viable options. Powerful players such as Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, Argentina’s Christina Fernandez, Costa Rica’s Laura Chinchilla, and others provide focal points for hopeful young Latinas. Perhaps surprisingly to some Americans, many Latin American countries are passing the U.S. in women’s participation in legislatures. Women make up at least 30 percent of the legislature in Cuba, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Argentina, Ecuador, and Guyana. At last count, women make up just 18.5 percent of the U.S. Congress.

Latin America continually ranks highly in female entrepreneurship. The region has great educational and business training opportunities for women, and women make up 50 percent of higher education graduates. In a new index recently released, Chile, Peru, Colombia, Mexico and Uruguay were ranked highest in providing the best environments for female entrepreneurs. However, women still lag in access to financial services.

However, despite these great advances, there is still inequality, room for improvement, and significant challenges facing women in Latin America. According to the World Bank, women face a variety of threats at different stages in their life. The prevalence of violence between intimate partners is estimated to be between 20 and 50 percent of women. Violence against women is widespread – more than half of the countries ranked as “high” or “very high” in levels of femicide are in Latin America – with El Salvador ranked as the worst in the world.

This is part of a larger problem in Latin America of overall insecurity, but women clearly face a heightened disadvantage in this area compared to men. Many activists point to easily-taken steps to address the problem, such as actually enforcing laws on the books and investigating crimes against women – as failing to do so creates an environment of impunity and a disincentive to report crime.

Health care is another area which has improved greatly over the last twenty years in Latin America, but noticeably has left women behind. While mortality rates in the region have dropped by 40 percent, but upon further inspection these rates vary largely depending on women’s ethnicity and socioeconomic status. As an example, indigenous women face three times the risk of death from pregnancy-related causes as other women. Furthermore, indigenous women face even more challenges across the board – in terms of access to health care, political participation, and education. Maternal health and level of education are inextricably linked to child survival and long-term life expectancy.

There is irrefutable evidence at this point that as more women enter the economy, participate in politics, start businesses, and have access to basic and financial services, the overall standards of living improve in a country and ultimately lead to more economic growth. As we celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8th, it is important to remember the great strides we have made over the last few decades, but also actively pursue ways in which we can continue to improve. Many, such as improving women’s access to education and to professional development and creating environments that encourage female political participation and entrepreneurship, are staring us in the face.

Laura Boyette is a Program Assistant for Latin America & the Caribbean at CIPE.